Last week, I saw a fascinating Charlie Rose interview with Chef Sean Brock, whom I'd never heard of. Brock grew up in rural Virgina in a place so poor and off the beaten track that it had no restaurants and few supermarkets. People had to grow and cook their own food. A sort of reverse food desert, if you will. It was a blessing in disguise. He and his neighbors retained the skills and connection to the earth that most Americans have lost.
Brock now owns and operates Husk in Charleston, S.C. where he is credited with reinventing southern food. A more accurate description would be rediscovering, even rescuing food of the South. Instead of Paula Deen's artery-clogging slop, Brock has a passion for vegetables, so much so that he has a garden tattooed the length of his arm. He described to Charlie the joy and reverence he feels each morning waking up to a cornucopia of produce stretching from his upper arm to his wrist.
I was especially taken with Brock's description of a dish called Hoppin' John. Consisting of peas, rice, onions, bacon and salt, I'd never heard of it. Simple, but supposedly excellent. Hoppin' John, he said, is a classic of Low Country cuisine, a style of cooking that grew out of rice cultivation in South Carolina's coastal plains.
Brock recalled his disappointment when he tried his first bowl of Hoppin' John. He thought that perhaps he had a bad batch and tried another restaurant. Its offering was equally tasteless. Upon further research, he realized that the problem wasn't the recipe. It was the ingredients. The right type of rice, the correct cultivar of beans, had become endangered. He realized that Low Country cuisine would have to be rebuilt from the soil up and set out to do so.
A fascinating interview with a fascinating man. We need many more like him.
The more I cook, the more I think simplicity is key. Take bread. I've fallen in love with the no-knead technique I discovered several months. I now bake bread every other day. It's so simple, just flour, salt, yeast and water, but so good. It's the best bread I've ever had outside of Europe.
And then there's what you can do with really good bread: Sandwiches, of course, not to mention toast for breakfast. Either inside or outside the bowl, it's a wonderful addition to soup. Stale bread can become bread crumbs, bread pudding or go into the salad. A quality loaf has endless uses.
That's true of many things. Take stock (no pun intended). Making it is cheap and easy: a chicken carcase, root vegetables, salt and pepper. It's a base for soups or sauces and a major flavor booster in stir fries. It can show up in places you don't expect, like Julia Child's potato salad calls.
So think twice before shelling out $20 for that special ingredient in the fancy dish you found on the Internet. Something simple and skillfully prepared will almost surely be tastier and lead to greater understanding and appreciation of food.
My daughter insisted that I watch the above TED talk by Homero Cato and Ben Roch, owners of the cutting edge Moto in Chicago. These guys specialize in "Foodtrips," the culinary equivalent of dropping a tab of acid. They blow minds with dishes like barbecue sauce made of straw and crab apples and a vegie burger that tastes like beef.
But this is more than a gastronomic gimmickry. These guys aren't bending the time-space continuum just for the hell of it. They're out to save the world one meal at a time by transforming local produce, including plants that we normally don't eat, into delectable dishes.
No more blowing carbon to transport produce half way around the country. Feed lot contamination becomes a thing of the past. And tuna avoids extinction.
It's a revolutionary idea, one that has the potential to transform diets and agriculture. Given climate change, overpopulation and environmental degradation, something like this is probably inevitable. As "traditional" foods dwindle, we will need to get innovative. We could well end up subsisting on grass and straws manipulated to taste good with "real" food an occasional treat.
So Paula Deen has diabetes. What a shock. I never would have guessed.
I don't want to be unkind. I feel bad for her. It's a terrible disease with potentially devastating and deadly consequences.
That said, Paula's over-the-top, artery-clogging cooking almost surely played a role in her illness. And she isn't just harming herself. She openly encourages her fans to overindulge, to eat that extra cookie, to ignore the experts and pound Crisco and butter until they are immobile on the couch. She got rich and famous off that schtick.
She gets diabetes three years ago and does she announce it? No. She waits -- until there's money to be made. She inks a deal to promote an expensive diabetes drug and her son launches a new show on lighter eating. Then she makes her revelation.
So basically, Paula got rich making people diabetic and now she's going to get richer selling them drugs for their condition while her son expands the Deen franchise hawking a slimmed down version of the very food that made her mother and others sick.
And she's shocked that people aren't more sympathetic? She's so clueless she ought to be in Congress.
Velveeta is one of the most toxic substances on earth, a cheese-like product of unknown provenance.
That said, I have to hand it to Kraft.This commercial is brilliant. I love how it tries to make Velveeta sound like a healthy alternative to fast food. Diabolical in its deception. Whoever did this should make commercials for the Republican party. And who would have thought cheese substitute could be sensual? They're going to move a lot of Velveeta.
About a week ago, I faced a dilemma: I needed a starch for dinner, but I had just two potatoes, not enough for mashed or baked potatoes. It was also not enough for a rather complicated big potato pancake recipe I've been making for a number of years.
Time to think fast. Why not try traditional potato pancakes, aka Latkes? I'd never made them before. I consulted a couple of cookbooks, and they looked amazingly easy and quick. Just shred some potatoes and onion, add breadcrumbs, an egg and salt and pepper and fry in a pan with thin sheen of oil.
It was as easy and quick as it sounded. In about 20 to 25 minutes, I had golden brown potato pancakes on the plate. They were heavenly, better than the big potato Frisbee that I've been laboring to make for years. I especially love the crunch and caramelization from a good roasting on each side. Very, very tasty.
Like so many great dishes, simple and delicious.
I've made them several times since, each time adjusting and each time they come out a little tastier. Here's my recipe:
Heat a large pan to medium high (I put it to 7 on electric range) with a thin film of oil (I use canola).
Shred two to three russet potatoes with a box grater (you can use a food processor, but it's nearly as fast and there's less cleanup with a box grater). Put the shredded potato in a colander and press, squeezing out as much liquid as possible.
Put the shredded potato in a large bowl and shred a onion. We prefer less onion, so I use a small or half a medium. Make this to taste.
Add about 2 tablespoons bread crumbs, preferably homemade, an egg and salt and pepper to taste. Mix thoroughly.
Check oil with a piece of potato. If it sizzles, the pan is ready. Collect half a cup of the mixture (you can make them any size) and drop into the hot pan, pressing down to flatten somewhat. Cook about six to 10 minutes on each side, rotating if necessary to assure even cooking and lowering temperature if they cook too fast.
As they finish, put on paper towels to drain. The pancakes stay hot for a good period of time, so I recommend against covering.
Latkes are traditionally eaten with applesauce. I have not tried it, but I can see how a little sweetness would enhance the flavor.
So the next time you need a quick starch. try potato pancakes. Tasty, delicious and rather fun to make.
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I currently write for the Hartford Courant and other publications. This blog is about whatever pops into my head, including food, cooking, baking, language, journalism, history, books, art and social commentary.